Affluenza doesn’t excuse wrongdoing


from “The Guardian”

Ethan Couch’s lawyer defended him by stating that he was not responsible for driving drunk and killing four people because he had “affluenza”.The legal argument dazzles.  Psychological research doesn’t support it.

The term “affluenza” came from a book that decries wealth-seeking consumerism. The author suggests that the west’s mental illness can be traced to an unhealthy obsession with accumulating more material goods. This provocative thesis suggests a profound social debate. It doesn’t apply to individual wrongdoing.

Affluenza doesn’t exist as a diagnostic category. Not having met, interviewed or tested Mr. Couch, I couldn’t pretend to know his diagnosis.

Linking psychopathology to class status, however, wrongly indicts people on the basis of how much money they have. Many wealthy people raise their children with great values. Many impoverished people raise healthy kids. People across the income distribution can also create children with significant psychopathology including sociopathy. No one group owns the rights to psychological disturbance.

Mental illness is a human burden that we bear collectively.

Ethan Couch had a great lawyer. He applied a defense often used in the legal bargaining of the less-resourced. His lawyer simply applied the rationale that environmental circumstances can lead to maladjusted behavior to the wealthy.

In truth, social class can importantly influence how a person sees the world, and how others see him or her.

Social class can mark identity. It can become part of person’s core sense of self. People exhibit their social class in their gestures, facial expressions and speech. Interpersonal communication often involves reading and assessing where a person falls on the class continuum.

Spotting the entitlements of the wealthy doesn’t require imagination. Recognizing the insecurities of  those less wealth doesn’t take genius. Financial circumstances can bind people to separate spheres of interaction creating distinct lenses through which to understand the world. A person of any economic category can fall victim to living in a bubble that can keep disconcerting information out of awareness.

Our society’s health lie in its diversity and its ability to bring people from all different backgrounds together. As we burst each other’s bubbles everyone stands to learn and grow more. People then formulate their ideas about reality on the basis of wider and wider sets of facts. A broader definition of what things mean derives from greater exposure to the differences in how people live. Status anxiety often occurs when people from different economic categories socialize.

Understanding the environmental influences of behavior can explain many aspects of individual psychology. It doesn’t provide a causal explanation for wrongdoing. An environmental analysis only matters to a criminal defense in so far as it determines whether or not a person had enough grasp of reality to understand right from wrong.

Social class doesn’t determine a person’s capacity for grasping reality.

Perpetuating the notion that Ethan Couch’s behavior directly resulted from class status doesn’t help our society come together. Perhaps his actions can be attributed to parenting. Maybe he has some neurological processing disorder. He may even be sociopathic, and researchers still don’t fully understand the underlying mechanisms of that disorder.

Importantly, nobody knows why Ethan Couch and his friends stole beer and drove drunk.

We know that a tragedy took place. He broke an important law.He knew about the law. For Ethan Couch’s sake, he should be held accountable.

Perhaps sentencing Couch to probation and rehabilitation may be a decent alternative to prison.

If so, such sentencing should be applied equitably and justly. Giving a person a more humane sentence for a crime because they can afford a more sophisticated defense impairs the common good.

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